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The LA Times reports that back to school reports on a number of national and local newscasts have included commentary from “a young mother and ‘toy expert’ named Elizabeth Werner,” described as “perky and positive-plus” in her demonstration of seven recommended toys for children. She talks about all the things the toys do in her segments on the air, but does not mention one fact parents might like to know — she is paid $11,000 for each toy she presents by the same company that is hoping you will buy them.
James Rainey points out that it is a violation of FCC rules for a news program to present a sponsored segment without disclosing that it is, in effect, an ad. It is also a violation of journalistic ethics which even chirpy morning shows are supposed to uphold.
Rainey, who by example demonstrates exactly what those standards are for, notes that

Werner is a lawyer who worked for a couple of toy companies before she went into the promotion business. She told me that the company that hires her to do the tours — New Jersey-based DWJ Television — scrupulously notifies TV stations that toy makers pay for the pitches. DWJ founder Dan Johnson, an ABC News veteran of decades gone by, said the same.

So I picked three stations and morning programs that Werner visited over the summer — Fox 2 in Detroit, Fox 5’s “Good Day Atlanta” and the independent KTVK’s “Good Morning Arizona” in Phoenix to see how they plugged the Werner segments. A spokesperson for the two Fox stations and the news director at the Phoenix outlet told me they had been told absolutely nothing about Werner being paid to tout products, which ranged from a Play-Doh press to a new Toy Story video game to the Paper Jamz electronic guitar.

He notes that the burden is not on the promoter who is being paid but on the news programs, who should always be suspicious of anyone who claims to be an expert, especially one who is touring the country without any visible means of support.
The burden, unfortunately, is on parents, who must also learn to be skeptical about “experts” who are just live-action versions of Marge the manicurist or Mr. Whipple the store manager.

This week’s releases include two films different in tone and style but both about the same time-honored subject of teenagers and sex. Every generation of teens thinks it invented sex and every generation of novelists and film-makers finds some new way to address one of the most significant moments in coming of age. “The Virginity Hit” and “Easy A” are both teen sex comedies set in affluent suburban communities with affectionate parents who are permissive to the point of being ineffectual (curiously, both families have adopted children). Both movies assume and portray an omni-networked community with technology deployed to make the most intimate details of everyone’s life and everyone’s responses to those details instantly and publicly available.
In a way, this is the update of the famous opening scenes in movies like “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Grease,” where news about going steady or a summer romance are transmitted with very different focus from the sexes via those predecessors to Twitter: the phone and actual in-person communication.
While the theme of teen sex and romance is eternal, the specifics in these new films are very contemporary, even emblematic of the age of social networking, texting, and YouTube. While individual sexual experiences continue to produce anxiety and intense emotion, the overall portrayal of sex and especially the all-but universal awareness of and involvement in each other’s sex lives is very different from earlier films. But in a more fundamental sense, the two movies are downright old-fashioned. They exemplify the double standard. Even in this casual world free from judgment in many respects, sex is seen very differently from the perspective of a boy and the people around him than from the perspective of a girl and the people around her.
“The Virginity Hit” is the story of a boy who is the last of his group of friends to have sex. The title refers to a tradition for observing — sometimes literally — this rite of passage; when one of the group has sex for the first time, they bring out a special bong shaped like a naked woman and smoke marijuana while they discuss all of the details. (Yes, I know, heartwarming.) Matt is the only one left but he has high hopes; his girlfriend of two years is willing and he has made plans for a special night.

In the world of this movie, sex is always a triumph for the boy and always a group bonding experience to be shared without restriction or inhibition. Indeed (and this is not unprecedented in movies of this genre) it feels as though the real act of consummation is the sharing; the sex itself is just the means to that end.
The medium is a part of the message in “The Virginity Hit,” which is shot as though it is a documentary. The other film opening this week is the more traditional “Easy A” in both style and content. It, too, is the story of a widely shared story of a teen sexual encounter. In this case, however, the main character is a girl, the encounter is fictitious, and her reputation is ruined. Emma Stone plays a girl who falsely tells her best friend she has had sex with a college boy just to appear interesting and important. And then she pretends to have sex with a closeted gay classmate to protect his reputation as a “manly” man, with pretty much the whole school listening at the door. No celebratory bong hit for her — she just becomes the talk of the school and the subject of open censure from the chastity club. She also, inexplicably and completely out of character, accepts payment for her pretend sexual encounters.
“The Virginity Hit” portrays sex from a male perspective. It is about conquest and masculinity and the other person does not really matter (there are three possible prospects he goes after in the course of the film). “Easy A” is the sadder but wiser tale from the girl’s side, told to us as explanation and apology. Like “Virginity Hit,” it is written and directed by men. And it continues a tradition going back to “Where the Boys Are” and even “The Scarlet Letter” referred to in the title of assuming that girls who have sex are branded forever as tramps, even, in this case, when the sex is faked.
I’d love to see the movie Stone’s wise and witty character would write and direct. In the meantime, parents of teenagers who see or hear about these films might want to try to get them to talk about the risks of the over-share and the even bigger risks of the over-judge.

Roger Ebert launched a thousand blog posts with howls of protest by asserting that a video game could never be a work of art. I don’t say “never” when it comes to art, but by all evidence to this point, a video game does not make a movie. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who improbably turned a theme park ride into a phenomenally successful movie franchise with the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, has not done as well by the Prince of Persia game, omitting the two elements that made the Pirates movies sensationally entertaining: a very good script and Johnny Depp.

Jake Gyllenhaal, newly bedecked in long hair, buff bod, and English accent, plays Dastan, a former street kid adopted by a king and raised as brother to his two sons. When he is framed for the murder of the king he must run. And since he has taken a special dagger that belongs to a princess, she has to come with him. She is the keeper of a sacred dagger, which gives everyone something to chase after, steal from each other, and almost lose many times.

The movie is about two-thirds action and one-third bickering banter. The action scenes are fairly good; the banter is below the level of chit-chat from Oscar presenters. There are winks at the game, with a lot of leaping between ledges and rooftops and the ability to rewind time. The story also has several distracting winks at current or near-current events, with complaints about taxes and a fruitless search for the ancient equivalent of weapons of mass destruction.

The settings are glorious. As swords are being wielded in a kaleidoscope of quick shots, we keep hoping for more of a chance to enjoy the scope and sweep and sumptuousness of the re-created ancient world of walled cities, palaces, and desert. Instead, it just serves to remind us of how undeserving the story that takes place there is by comparison.

Two bad signs. One is when you spend the entire movie thinking that a couple of Google searches would have made it possible for everyone in the story to save a week’s effort and everyone in the audience about an hour of viewing time. Another is when the B couple is twice as interesting as the A couple and sets off ten times the romantic electricity.

But the Italian scenery is very pretty.

Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is a fact-checker for the New Yorker who dreams of being a writer but is too insecure to insist on a chance. She and her restaurateur fiance Victor (Gael García Bernal) go to Italy on a pre-wedding vacation, but he gets caught up in work and leaves her on her own to explore.

In Verona, best known as the setting for “Romeo and Juliet” and the real-life story that inspired it, Sophie finds that a small group of women gather up the letters left in Juliet’s wall by lovers looking for help. And then they write answers providing sympathy and guidance. She finds a letter that had been inside the wall for 50 years, from an English girl who lost her nerve and went home instead of meeting the boy she loved to run away with him. And she decides to answer it.

The letter-writer turns out to be Claire (Vanessa Redgrave), who arrives in Verona with her grandson, inspired by Sophie’s letter to try to find the man she left behind half a century before.

Can Sophie come along? Can this be the story that will move her from fact-checker to writer? Is Claire’s grandson, who initially appeared to be so arrogant and unlikeable, in fact a hottie and a sweetie? Will someone end up on a balcony? Naturalmente, senza dubbio!

Redgrave is radiant as the woman who is hoping for a romantic miracle. Claire never stopped loving the boy she met in Italy but she did not let her regret interfere with a life of purpose and loving relationships. Still, the encouragement from Sophie’s letter has her hoping for a miracle — that she can find her lost love and that he still cares for her. Redgrave shows us Claire’s resolve and her vulnerability, her practicality and her optimism. She is pure magic and she makes us want to see Claire find some magic, too.

But she is so good that she casts a spotlight on the weaknesses of the rest of the movie. Her grandson Charlie (a bland Christopher Egan) is rude and dull. Of course the first thing he will do on accompanying his grandmother to Verona is take time out to track down Sophie so he can yell at her. Yes, we like to see lovers begin with antagonism so we can enjoy the delicious moment when they make a deep connection and have to admit to themselves that they like each other. But the antagonism is so arbitrary it makes Charlie unlikeable. And that moment? They smash ice cream cones into each other’s faces. That doesn’t exactly get us rooting for them to get together. Too much in the movie makes too little sense. Why do they have to drive around to ask dozens of men with the same name whether they are the one? Why is Bernal playing such a stock character (and yet still showing more chemistry with Seyfried than Egan)? Why, why, does there have to be a last-minute fake-out to drag things out further?

Juliet, if you’re out there, I’d welcome a letter in reply.